The Virgin Suicides (1999)

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Directed by Sofia Coppola

The Virgin Suicides is about a group of girls who are picked apart by their parents, the media, other kids and the town as a whole.  Their whole situation is a little absurd, certainly heightened and never taken as seriously as it should be.  Even the deaths themselves are so shocking that the effect is simply that, to shock you, not to make you feel the weight of what’s happened.

The characters I’m talking about are four blonde sisters who ultimately kill themselves in similarly bloodless ways, almost a year after their youngest sister took her own life.  The four girls committing suicide on the same night makes their act more of a spectacle than an expression of some kind of pain, at least in the eyes of the people around town who gossip and spy on them.

The story dehumanizes these characters, making them less than human.  Upfront we know they all commit suicide, and I think that knowledge frames all of their behavior, even if they didn’t know how their lives would end, because we know.  One boy, now a man, narrates the film, like the narrator in a much more innocent film such as The Sand Lot.  It’s presented as a coming of age tale, but any character growth is mitigated by the behavior we witness at the end of the film.  The girls’ deaths are meant to seem like warnings.  The school begins to take steps to talk about what happened to Cecilia, hoping to prevent it from happening again.  A news woman comes by on multiple occasions to tell the tragic story, but to her it’s nothing more than a story.

The boys appear to grow through simply observing the girls.  This already makes the girls’ own lives less meaningful, because they only serve to help guide the boys on their own journey.  The boys claim to be in love with the girls, collecting notes from them as well as Cecilia’s diary.  They obsess over them like crazy fans of some new celebrity.  After the remaining sisters’ deaths (to which they were firsthand witnesses) the boys are seen at a seasonal gala in which they are already going about their lives.  One boy kisses a girl, another flirts with a girl before she starts to vomit.  A man jokingly says “goodbye cruel world” before falling backwards into a pool.  He quickly gets out and makes more jokes about a teenager committing suicide.  The party is an asphyxiation-themed party, like something out of Eyes Wide Shut.  The whole situations is silly and frightening, but the point is clear: life goes on, but not for the Lisbon girls.

The Lisbon sisters never had much of a life anyway.  Again, because we know they commit suicide from the beginning, I think there is a certain detachment between them and the audience.  Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is the most well-defined character because of a brief relationship she has with Trip (Josh Hartnett) which goes poorly and makes her and her sisters feel more of their parents over-protective wrath.  All of Lux’s behavior feels a bit alien because we don’t have any idea what she’s thinking.  Throughout the film I had this expectation that the girls knew they were going to commit suicide.  I was generalizing their behavior because of the simple fact that I knew it would happen, and I knew it would be part of a bigger, mass suicide.  I didn’t see Lux or her sisters as genuine characters, same as everyone else.  I don’t know what I saw Lux as, but the moment I realized her suicide (as well as her sisters’) wasn’t pre-planned and instead the result of a tragic combination of heartbreak, heartbreaking parents and overall melancholy lingering from Cecilia’s own death, I felt that much more sad.

The girls were let down on multiple occasions.  Trip, the boy who briefly appeals to Lux’s wildest imaginations, sleeps with her and then abandons her on an empty field in the middle of the night.  She is a conquest, another number by a womanizer, and he simply moves on.  The only time the film breaks from its storytelling structure (the one-man voiceover) is when it interviews adult Trip, recounting his time with Lux.  His words are labored, as if he’s truly sad about what happened, but he then says, “most people will never taste that kind of love, but at least I tasted it once, right?”  The story remains his story, and Lux played a passing role in it.  He somehow romanticizes their fling, using it to further illustrate one part of his own life.  He completely misses the point.  Trip never discusses what happened to Lux after him and how he could’ve been a better guy, he simply focuses on that one night.  To him the story ended right then and there; only Lux had to deal with the rest.

We never know that much about the girls, but neither does anyone else.  They’re always grouped together, with the same blonde hair, wearing the same plain, beige Puritan dresses, giggling the same way.  In other words, they are generalized by people who only pretend to know anything about them.  And we’re a part of that group of onlookers because we only know anything about them through the eyes and voices of men in the community.

The night of the girls’ suicides, we only see limbs, never faces.  They are already corpses before they were ever even people.  I think Sofia Coppola wants to force us to take a look at the way we absorb tragedy.  Is any of our supposed grief (for, say a celebrity’s death) earnest and necessary?  Or do we just feel it because we want to remind ourselves that we’re empathetic.  In other words, is our grief self-serving?  In this story it is.  The girls are marked for death by the film’s title, and this is all symbolized by the rotten tree in the Lisbons’ front yard.  Early in the film it is marked for removal, and in the end it is removed.  It’s simply waiting to die.

So maybe this story tells us how we look at those who’ve died and really anyone outside of ourselves.  Our own story, our own lives, are ongoing.  We don’t know the end, and we never will.  But for other people we don’t simply know the end, we only know the end.  Sometimes people are simply whoever they were the last time you saw them.  This could be a childhood friend who you still see as that same 12 year old, or a coworker or a grandparent.  They aren’t the sum of their experiences, joys, desires, fears, triumphs and failures but rather just one thing.  “She was nice” or “he lit up the room when he walked in.”  There’s never any ‘why’ or ‘how,’ just a ‘what.’

What were these girls?  They were the objects of fascination, scrutiny, wrath, worship and desire.  In the end they became a story people tell, as if it’s someone theirs to tell.  The rest of the town, mostly men, take ownership of the Lisbons’ story.

There are a couple instances where the narrator tells us that he and his friends had fantasized about taking the girls away from this town and out to the real world.  They would show them the sites (as if they knew anything about the sites) and take pictures and live this perfectly, joyous life.  In these fantasies, they say, Cecilia wasn’t dead, just engaged to be married in a far away country.  They’re already rewriting the story.

In the end, the girls lure the boys over using a sort of morse code.  They know the boys are eager to be a part of this story.  We then get a flash of the boys’ fantasy, hitting the open road with the girls, the windows down and the girls’ arms around their shoulders.  They pretend they want to save the Lisbon girls but it’s really them who want to be saved.  When they say they have a car and are ready to take them anywhere, Lux tells them that she has her own car they can take.  Up until the end she pretends that they’re a part of the boys’ fantastical story.  The boys then discover, with horror, that they were never the ones writing the story to begin with.

The boys simply want a story to tell, and because of the girls’ deaths, they have it.

This film is surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) very funny.  The premise of the film is already a little absurd, and so is Trip’s characterization and the fake news report after Cecilia’s death.  The whole film is full of subtle, twisted moments that both make you feel uncomfortable and make you more aware that this isn’t a normal coming of age story. Certain moments add up to nothing, and it feels like it’s all a message that not every story is neat and tidy.  This story should be troubling to watch.  It’s about five girls, all under 18, who kill themselves, and yet so much of the movie feels innocent, familiar and even charming.  Then you have those moments that are there to remind you that none of this is charming.

Some of those moments include the mentally challenged kid who the kids affectionately but not so affectionately pick on, tickling him so he smiles a certain way and making him sing a song he’s known to sing.  They press the buttons and he responds.  There is no human interaction here, just an artificial attempt at some sort of dialogue.  This comes after the boys and girls had absolutely nothing to talk about.  Instead of communicating, the only thing they have to do is pick on a mentally handicapped boy who most likely doesn’t understand he’s being picked apart for someone else’s pleasure.

You have Mr. Lisbon and his quiet madness.  He slowly goes from nerdy but endearing math teacher to a bit of a lunatic who either doesn’t care or doesn’t realize his daughters haven’t been at school in two weeks (after he and his wife lock them up following Lux’s night out).  Lastly there is the asphyxiation-themed party at the end, in which many party guests wear gas masks.  It seems to poke fun at Lux’s death (with the car running in the garage) while people pretend to ignore what happened or whisper about it over one too many glasses of wine.

Everyone tells their own story, and anyone not there to back it up becomes reduced to whatever fits that story.  Or something like that.  The name “The Virgin Suicides” already feels like a legend that’s been whispered around the small Michigan suburb of this film.  It takes on a life of its own, handed down through stories.  The boys listen to other boys tell stories, and they accept it as if it’s unquestionable.  Later one of them repeats one of these stories to one of the Lisbon girls, and they too accept it at face value.  The truth can be easily distorted, and the whole story may be distorted through the lens of the men telling the story.  The film ends with the boys standing outside the Lisbon home, and the narrator explains that they will always remain mysteries to them.  It’s at least a positive that they don’t pretend to understand the girls, though they certainly have the story they tell (and have been telling).

 

 

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